The Middle Between Supply and Demand with Mike Darrow

August 31, 2022
Transportation is freedom. Mike Darrow, President and CEO of TrueCar, recognizes that automotive can often live in the space between supply and demand, where a dealership is looking to purchase cars in order to meet the needs of customers. And TrueCar has a lot of experience in that position. This conversation jumps around a bit, from the chip shortage to serving dealers to serving consumers to tracking the shopping journey to building community. The threads that tie it together are that transportation is freedom, and the car business cares about people.
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Kyle Mountsier: 0:00

So I'm excited because this was a really good one.

Unknown: 0:09

This is Auto Collabs.

Kyle Mountsier: 0:11

Man. Go ahead, go ahead. Okay. We should leave all that in. After you. Don't worry about me. Okay, so today we have the CEO and President Mike Darrow from TrueCar. And coming from the dealer side of the industry, I will say that a lot of times when things, words that rhyme with mubar, like TrueCar come out of people's mouths, there's a little bit of like recoil, right? Oh, they got you know, and I'm really excited about today's conversation, because I think what happens is when we, when we start to meet the guy from 105, you know, the guy from the apartment 105, that guy that never throws his trash out. And but when you meet Steve from 105, all of a sudden, Steve, and not just Steve, but like his apartment all become more approachable. And I'm just excited to kind of hear and gain the insights of what TrueCar's doing what they're seeing in the industry, because they do have so much data they touched so, so many different places in the automotive in the retail automotive industry. And I think that, you know, getting them going to the guy from 105 is important, even from a guy that comes from the dealer side. Yeah, the first, I guess this is the second TrueCar CEO, that I'm going to get to have a conversation with getting to know Chip Perry a little bit. Well, I'm sorry, I'm just racking them up. But I remember meeting Chip Perry for the first time. And Chip came into TrueCar when they were in a pretty tumultuous period. And Chip literally went on a road show all over the country, to sit and listen to dealers face to face eye to eye and say what are your thoughts? Why do you feel that way? How can I help you in what you're trying to do in your community? Seems like Mike is carrying that torch really well. So I'm looking forward to seeing how that actually plays out?

Michael Cirillo: 2:08

Well, not only that, I mean, I've got his LinkedIn up in front of me, I'm really interested, I really hope he gives us some insight into just the scope of his career, because he's not a spring chicken in this industry. Like he is a vet. He's been around for for quite some time. But but from so many different vantage points, like I'm seeing, you know, Edmonds, and I'm seeing Nissan Motor Corporation, and I'm seeing, you know, just like, there's a lot going on here. And so you know, that coming up a scale like that, all the way the CEO and president of a company like TrueCar, he's, he's seen some stuff. And I always I always love being able to sit and just listen to individuals like that, of course, we hope you enjoy this conversation with Mike Darrow, the CEO of TrueCar, right here on Auto Collabs.

Kyle Mountsier: 3:00

All right. We are hanging out today with Mike Darrow, President and CEO of TrueCar. Mike, thanksbfor joining us on auto collapse today.

Mike Darrow: 3:10

Well, thanks for having me. It's great to be here and spend some time chat with you guys about the business. Yeah, absolutely.

Kyle Mountsier: 3:15

Well, let's start there. Because right before this, you know, I think a lot of people they see things like President and CEO on companies or on titles, or especially in public traded companies, and it's like, ah, that guy's way out there. You know, it's and sometimes you kind of get this, this kind of alter personality that is kind of, quote unquote, untouchable. But But you just said to us, Hey, I've been in the car business for quite some time, love talking about the business just getting in the weeds. So take us back just a little bit just for the listeners on on when it started all out for you in the automotive industry.

Mike Darrow: 3:53

Yeah, I really have been in the industry, almost my entire adult life. I kind of fell into a job coming out of college. The young lady I was dating in college, did some babysitting for the Dean of Admissions. And one Saturday night, we went to their house for dinner. And her husband was a Chrysler dealer. And he asked me if I had a job, you know, after school, I said, Well, I'm talking to some folks. He said, Well, you know, I just hired my Chrysler factory rep to come work at my store. You know, I know they got to be hired, and maybe you want to talk to Chrysler. And I was I said, Sure. You know, I was practicing my interview skills and doing all those things. I said, Let's do it. Sent me in for an interview, got the job that day, and I've never looked back since then. So it's been nearly 40 years. And first 20 of it on the wholesale side. I spent the first three with with Chrysler and then I jumped over to Nissan spent 17 years there, and then 15 years with Edmonds, and then over here to TrueCar after that, so you know, it's been an unbelievable run. I love this business. I've seen it from a lot of different sides. In the OEM roles, I got to call on dealers probably We've been in 1000s of dealerships in my life. You know, I did parts orders, I've signed warranty claims I've shipped allocations. So I've seen it all across the board. And I love it. It's it's an exciting business and, and one that once you're in it, I think it's really hard to get out

Kyle Mountsier: 5:17

of. Yeah, that's legit. That is for sure. That is for sure. You know, one of the things that we're talking a lot in the industry right now is that times are like, they are crazy, right? We got chip, we got pandemic, we've got inventory shortages, potential electrification, you know, electrification, and agent, potential agency model, all of these things are happening. They're crazy around us. But every time I get in conversations with the people that have been in the industry longer than eight to 10 years, there's a perspective that, that people like yourself, I feel like bring, and I'd love to kind of hear your perspective on how these challenges are maybe juxtaposed or in line with some of the things that you've seen throughout the industry, and throughout time, and how, like the approach of the way that you know, that that those things have been approached over time might impact the way that we need to be approaching some of the changes that are coming in our industry.

Mike Darrow: 6:10

Yeah, and I've certainly seen a lot of these cycles, you know, come through the industry, and they tend to be a bit of a roller coaster. You know, I've seen high interest rates and low interest rates and high inventory levels and low inventory levels and big incentives and no incentives. And it's just, you know, the the industry is amazingly responsive. And that's the thing I like about dealers are, they're such entrepreneurial people that they just adjust to what's going on in the marketplace. But, you know, this chip shortage thing, I gotta tell you guys, and you probably talked to a lot of people about it. It's really a crazy thing I was reading. Not long ago, the the July report from Automotive News on sales. So Toyota sells 153,000 cars in July, which was down about 20% from the year before. But they have 14,000 they had 14,000 cars in their dealer inventory, when the month it just, I can't even run that through my head to think they still now there's another 100,000 coming from the port and there's some, you know, that are on their way to dealers. But and you guys see it, I mean, you drive past a dealer lot these days, and they've got the used cars parked in the front, like kind of sideways to take up more space. tailgates are down, right? I mean, it's crazy what they're doing. So you know, and that has its, its its ripple effect for us, because our traffic's unbelievably good right now. I mean, you know, people have realized, I think that the days of driving up to a dealership and walking the lot and seeing a couple 100 new cars, a couple of 100 used cars at doesn't exist anymore, you know, you got to do your research, you got to get online, you got to try to find what you can find, and then start your shopping process. So, you know, I think it's a really interesting time in that this chip shortage hit on the front end of this conversion to EV. Right. And when we thought the chip shortage was going to be short term, you know, I thought it would cycle through and then we'd get back to this EV discussion. Now these things are starting to run together, right, you're starting to see these more and more electric vehicles come in. So I think it's going to be really interesting. And I tell you guys, the honest to God's truth. I've got many friends still on the OEM side, and I still can't get an answer to where all the chips are, or when they're coming. And I don't know that if it's they don't know. Or if it just doesn't do anybody any good to tell anyone. You know, maybe that's the reason there's he can't get the information on it. But well, I think

Kyle Mountsier: 8:58

we're probably pretty certain that it's not good news. Yeah.

Mike Darrow: 9:02

Well, the more I thought about it, and I talked to friends, I mean, I'm talking to people who would usually give me an answer. And after I talked to him, I thought, Well, if the real answer is 18 months, what's the benefit of telling anybody that there really isn't because right,

Kyle Mountsier: 9:16

from saying if it was encouraging news, they'd want to be the first one to tell you. So if it's 18 months, you remember in the beginning, it was like, oh, it's gonna be rough for six months. And then it was like, the next year and then probably like, it's gonna be like two years. Remember, it just kept like, exponentially growing. And then eventually everyone was fine with like, you probably figured this out already. But we actually have no idea. That's,

Mike Darrow: 9:39

yeah, well, I think after they did their third revision, they felt okay, say and we have no idea. They just started saying we're not sure it's

Kyle Mountsier: 9:46

right. Like what else are we gonna do there? Everybody was trying to be very optimistic. Well, so you have a unique seat because you get to see a whole lot of data coming in as far as consumer behaviors and the traffic. What is different about this period? Time, are there any insights you can give us to the consumer traffic patterns? Or what people are actually doing? You know, how you're seeing them in the process multiple times, whatever, what can you, you know, help us understand, you know, if if we're dealing, we're saying, what are consumers doing? How can we understand them more?

Mike Darrow: 10:14

Yeah, and we every quarter spend a couple of days talking to a few thousand of our customers as they flow through the system trying to make sure we're staying current with issues. And, you know, the, the, the underlying tone is, it's been this way, for a long time, that the actual process to buy a car at a dealership takes what, four or five hours on a weekend, maybe a couple of different days together, you got to spend the time. So what consumers are telling us is, they want to pull as much of that online as they can, right, let's pull some of this process online, give me tools, so that I can do more of my shopping and shorten that process. So, you know, 65% of the people we talked to said they would be willing to do the majority of all the way up to the full purchase online. And you know, I'll come back to that we'll we'll spin back to transacting online because we're working on some things there that are going to be really interesting for dealers. But right now, what consumers want is they want the ability to find a car, understand the price, get a real cash value for their trade, understand Payment Capabilities. Am I a lease buyer? Am I a payment buyer? You know, I've got the average consumer and one of the guys in our building has a great expression. There's no longer a five digit purchase. It's a three digit purchase, right? The car costing $37,000 is hard for people to understand what they know is I've got 2500 bucks, I can put down and I can pay 400 a month, right? So show me some cars that kind of meet those needs, that that, you know, fit my lifestyle, those sorts of things. So that's what consumers tell us is give me more usable information online so that I can get as much of the deal done I can before going to the dealership? Do you find any Ohira expressions, the new hot button in the industry is omni channel, right? That's where you do part of the deal online, then you go into the store and fix finish it up. We've introduced a lot of tools that support the consumer on that. And then ultimately, we'd like to build, you know, the full process online.

Kyle Mountsier: 12:24

Do you find that the shopping behavior at least in the data that you're seeing, are you seeing people begin and end their shopping journey at different places? Especially when prices are so different? Are they starting more with price or payment? Or is it still kind of a you know, recognize is it still early is type of vehicle and features and all that and then moving into price and payment? And they're just wanting more of that information pulled into the online? Or is there a different shopping behavior at the front or back of of the journey?

Mike Darrow: 12:58

I think a lot of that depends on you know the demographics, you're trying to cater to, you know, we took our traffic and we put it in, I think it was eight different consumer personas or buckets of how people shop. What's happening right now is a lot of used car activity, right? New cars are scarce. So a lot of people are shopping used cars. And I think the used car buyer tends to be a little different than the new car buyer, right? If you if every three years you lease a five series BMW, black on black and you know what you want, that customer is easy to help, right, it's easy to help them get where they need to get to the used car buyer, oftentimes a payment buyer and affordability buyer, and they do want to pull on some of the credit activities upfront, you know, they'll participate in the soft credit pull, they'll give you their data to see what they qualify for. So we do see on the used car side financing moving upstream. The other thing that's moved upstream is the trade in. You know, there's so much talk about We'll buy your car, some of the vertically integrated used car players like Carvana and CarMax and Vroom they're out there buying used cars from folks and promoting that so people want to know what their used car's worth right now, and how that fits into their deal. The good news is used car values are really high. So people who didn't have equity or were in a tough spot on their used car in the past are usually in a good spot to trade right now.

Kyle Mountsier: 14:26

You know, I could I could see that actually being extremely helpful for dealers, especially from like a marketing or website perspective. And recognizing what what are the questions the key questions that most consumers are asking. And so if most consumers are wanting to move up, especially on used cars wanting to move upward, the finance aspect or the trade aspect, then even changing something as simple as like a call to action on a VDP to highlight or prioritize those might actually make sense if you guys hadn't made any moves and in the way that you ask people To to bring information like have you move trade up in the consideration phase in the vehicle even in like the way that shoppers are interacting on TrueCar?

Mike Darrow: 15:09

Yeah, so we've broken the deal down into four phases. So you've got like the discovery and shopping phase, then you've got to deal building phase, then you've got a finance and paperwork phase, and then a delivery phase. So we've we've seen in that deal building phase, first thing people want to do is is use card get a value for their trade. And our data is running pretty consistent over the past few years, about 50% of the folks we talked to, who are come to our site, have a trade in. So we get them on getting get them an understanding of their trade, our products are guaranteed cash value for their number, so we can go right into a deal. We've built an electronic payoff tool, where if the consumer gives us a little bit of data, we can go and get their what their payoff is, and then give them a net value for their trade, which is critical, you know, if you're going to go from your trade to build a deal, you got to be able to make that, you know, correlation there. So we've brought all those tools up front. The other thing we're working on is, and I think it'll really help the used car buyer, we've got, let's say a million units on our site for people to shop through if you wanted to look at them. But a lot of those units aren't affordable for folks. So if you could pull the financing upfront, you can actually tailor what you're showing them to cars that meet their budget, right? And you really eliminate that downstream frustration where you let them get on a car that they can't afford. Yep, right. So nothing, when all of a sudden, they're in a credit app process, they're getting turned down, right, or they're getting heavy steps coming back at them is what needs to be done. So, you know, we think early on, if you can do it in a way that the consumer feels you're helping them if you can get that information from them and say, Hey, I understand your buying power. You know, let us help you understand the type of cars that fit into your lifestyle and your budget. You know, we think that's going to be important. So those are two big trends. We've seen financing moving up and and people want to know what their used cars worth.

Kyle Mountsier: 17:15

You know, oh, go ahead.

Michael Cirillo: 17:18

I was gonna say this really underscores one of those simple tweaks to the process that will alleviate I think a lot of the negative stigma that consumer feels towards car dealer by simply giving them more information up front, do you? Are you seeing any trend in that direction? Where where the, you know, by moving some of these facets further upstream? That it's alleviating the stress, the anxiety and overall perception of how how they felt going into the deal?

Mike Darrow: 17:48

Yeah, we hear that quite a bit. And the good news is we hear it from both sides of the equation. Right? So you know, we call ourselves a two sided marketplace, we sit in the middle between demand and supply, we try to pay equal attention to both sides. A whole all the demand in the world, if you don't have dealers providing supply and wanting to be on your platforms, no good, right. And we can have all the supply in the world. If we don't have any shoppers, we're not helping any dealers that way either. So we really spend a lot of attention and looking at both sides of it. And when people get values for us from their for their trade, for example, takes a lot of pressure off the dealer. They don't feel they're getting lowballed, right, you know, it's a third party number, the guaranteed cash value we put on it, helping them through some of the discovery process. People tell us it's easier to do that in the anonymity in the comfort of your home, rather than sitting with an F&I man, I'm not sure what I can afford and going through that process. And you know, those sorts of things. So yeah, we think with transparency, and that's the beauty of our platform, you know, what we're trying to do? And we looked outside the automotive space for inspiration, right. But what's happened over the past? I don't know several years now is there's been these really cool modern day marketplaces that have popped up. Everywhere outside of our vertical there's, in you know, Expedia, Amazon, Grub Hub, they've revolutionized the way people are consuming products. And when we started to look at them, what they really are is a combination of demand supply and some really cool technology to bring those two together. Right and, and that's what we want to build a TrueCar. And, you know, when you do this, we tell dealers, don't be afraid of the digital revolution. Let us bring you into it. Right, because we need you as part of this. We've got this demand every month. Let us bring your supply online, your pricing, your waterfall on credit, your insurance products, all those things and let let us make that connection with the consumer where they can do it right online. And, you know, we think the current buyers, people who have bought a number of cars want to transition online, what what I've tried to spend some time on and I've got a son who's a senior at UCLA, these new buyers that are coming into the marketplace, they buy everything on their phone. I mean, everything. So I think the automotive industry has to think about how to participate in that. Right, I tell a story. I was at the mall, doing a brunch with my family one Sunday. And afterwards, my wife and daughter went in one direction, my son and I went and another we walked past the Nike store. And he's one of those tennis shoe geeks, right? He's probably got 75 pairs of tennis shoes. He's got my whole life, right. So yeah, he loves tennis shoes. He's got a different set of tennis shoes for no matter what he's doing. So we walked past this Nike store. And man, the music's blast and the lights are flashing. The people are dressed up. They built this store for his demographic, you could just tell. And I said, Hey, Nick, let's go in and look at tennis shoes. He said, Dad, why would I do that? I go, What do you mean, there's a big Look at him. They're all on the wall. He goes, Hey, I'll go home. I'll get my computer out. I'll find what I want. I ordered three pairs. I'll keep the ones I want and send the other ones back.

Kyle Mountsier: 21:22

He's actually like, oh, yeah, I saw what they had. I just bought it on my Yeah, it'll be at my house.

Mike Darrow: 21:27

It was like a watershed. It was like, you know, these they're different man. They're just the everything's at their hands

Michael Cirillo: 21:36

Paul and Kyle have changed choose four times just during this conversation. Slipping on and off. While seeing this just validates the whole point.

Paul Daly: 21:50

I know shoes and hats. I see that. That's right. Yeah, I'm probably a little older than your son though. Maybe he's a late bloomer. So I think easy. From the retail standpoint, I love the thinking behind like, hey, let's emulate retail. Right? Because there's dealers, or retailers or not car people, you know, like in the thinking re recontextualize everything we're doing through the retail lens makes a whole lot of sense. But some things are just kind of inherently human. And I'm always intrigued when I hear companies still paying attention to the human element of like community building, giving back. It's something that dealers are so well known for, for the people that know them and like pay attention. Like if dealers were pulled out of communities everywhere, everyone would all of a sudden realize how much dealers actually sow into the community. And you all at TrueCar you do quite a few things around veterans that I think are really notable and maybe you could talk a little bit on some of the things that initiatives that you have where you are investing in communities. There you go. Right, that's gonna have all teed up talking

Mike Darrow: 22:57

talking about it gave me the Lord put it all

Kyle Mountsier: 23:01

like you better shot with a black black hat if you're gonna go with this. No, but maybe you could talk about that a little because I think that that inherently is one of the the pieces of glue that can help tie industry partners and dealers even closer together, as we put on a kind of a united front to the to the general consumer public saying like, hey, the car business cares about people. So what are you all doing right now?

Mike Darrow: 23:23

Yeah, it does. And, you know, we are our connection to the military community started many, many years ago with a partnership with USAA. And they are an amazing organization in supporting the military community, we powered an automotive buying channel for them and, and really got to get involved and experience that and, and we've built out what I believe to be a really authentic military channel, where we go to our OEM partners, all of them have special military incentives, we asked him to run some other incentives, particularly for the folks who are shopping the military channel on our site. We have a driven to drive program, where we donate two vehicles a year to disabled Americans vets with the DAV and it's just an amazing thing. And it's, it's really at the core of what we've become. We try to be really authentic around this and you know, it's important. Transportation is freedom, right? When you think about it, what do you try to get out we get to get in our car we drive around, I mean, here in California badly I get to go to the beach, you know, all those things. And, and what we heard from veterans were the loss of that freedom when they come back with a you know, a situation where they've been wounded. So, you know, we've got a real authentic driven to drive program. We've got programs with team RWB, I you know, we're we're doing some things with you guys around your 9/11 event. We're excited about and you know, all the all the things that congratulations for the things you do there, but you know, it's amazing. This is one we have three or four are of our own, that people who run this channel for us, and this was one of my absolutes are former vets, we're in the military, you got to be authentic if you're going to do this, right, I mean, you got to stay core what you're really trying to do and take it, we've stayed very focused on that. And, you know, we also are trying to drive some other things, you know, we're sponsors of women in automotive, we're responses of NAMAD and minority dealer programs going on, I think one of the challenges our industry is faced is, over time, we're getting more diverse, but we just haven't been a diverse, you know, industry from that perspective, particularly on the OEM side, and I know Mary Barra is changing that a bit. But for my 20 years, in OEM, I'd go to the cocktail party, and it'd be, you know, 95%, you know, middle aged guys in gray suits. And I think that limits innovation, right, if you're gonna cater, if you're going to serve as a full community, you got to have people in your organization who understand that the core, those communities. And you know, I remember not too long ago, and there's many situations I've been in that remind me of this, but I got a pitch on how to market to women by like, five dudes, right? They walked into my office, they're like, we're missing something here. Now, these guys were smart. They did their research, but it just didn't feel authentic, you know, you need to be real about this stuff. And I think our industry needs to lean more into that we need to be more diverse. We need to bring more diverse thinking into the way we approach the business. And, you know, we're always trying to do that and making sure we're focused on

Paul Daly: 26:43

Well, no one hears are you with that at all? Mike Darrow, thank you so much for taking some time out of your busy schedule. I know you have a lot of things that you're in the middle of on behalf of Michael Cirillo, Kyle Mountsier myself. Thanks for joining us on Auto Collabs.

Mike Darrow: 26:55

Thanks for having me, guys. It was great talking to you. And, you know, hey, anytime you got an open spot, give me a call. I love chatting with you guys.

Michael Cirillo: 27:05

So here we have, I mean, he didn't disappoint. He gave us a lot of context about his upbringing in the automotive industry, very clear to me how passionate he is about this space about various layer. Like he said, at one point, it's really not easy to get out of the car business. But I think if we're all being honest, it's because we just fall so deeply in love with it, you know, but what also really inspired me is here we are sitting sitting with the President, CEO of TrueCar. And Mike says something that we've all heard and probably have admitted to ourselves, I fell into the business. And you know, what I wrote down in my notes, falls into business. And then in all caps, I wrote opportunity question mark, because like, we're always wondering, can you make a career here? Dude fell into the business, he was

Kyle Mountsier: 27:54

a body. Body and then was the CEO. Right? Exactly, you know, and then 40 years later, right.

Michael Cirillo: 28:04

That success

Kyle Mountsier: 28:05

Well, well, and here's what I love about this, because we go from, you know, and I think this is so true of so many in our industry, that it's like, alright, I can I know all the data that's happening outside of TrueCar, boom, I read automotive news, I know that Toyota is dealing with this type of stuff. Also, let me tell you about exactly how we serve dealers, how we serve customers, how the Integrated Data shopper journeys, also community, right. And it's like, if you ask them to the majority of people to get on a business podcast, and go through those three things in 22 minutes, they would shock them. But for automotive people, it's like, yeah, full news, product, community, let's go, you know, and it ends with this line. That was transportation is freedom. And I think that, as an industry, we sometimes we forget that and we just think transportation is transaction. And so I think it's just an encouragement to me that the transportation is freedom, that we're giving people the capacity for freedom.

Paul Daly: 29:02

I really always get encouraged when someone who is leading a big organization, which obviously has a lot of legacy, a lot of responsibility to a lot of people, right. So it's not only dealers, consumers, but a big staff, right. There's just a lot of pressure to, to meet like such a regular guy at the helm. It just immediately makes me feel like, Oh, I understand why people like Right, like, I understand why people in the organization follow him, right? Somebody who can speak it just it feels very automotive to me, right? Because you think of how many billionaires, right? And if you're an automotive here, if you're listening to this, and you're not in automotive, this might come across as braggadocious. But if you're in automotive, you understand, I'm like, how many billionaires do the three of us know? Right? Like a lot. And guess what? Most of them you would never know, because they're just regular guys and gals that are just at the Little League games and it's not like full button up. So I think there's something just quintessentially Auto about Mike and I think that's why I enjoyed that interview so much looking forward to meeting him in person in sometime soon but for now on behalf of Michael Cirillo Kyle Mountsier myself. Thank you so much for listening to Auto Collabs

Kyle Mountsier: 30:12

sign up for our free and fun to read daily email for free shot of relevant news in automotive, retail media and pop culture. You can get it now @ asotu.com That's ASOtu.com. If you love this podcast, please leave us a review and share it with a friend. Thanks again for listening. We'll see you next time

Michael Cirillo: 0:00Alright, so today we get to sit down with Erin SparksUnknown: 0:10

This is Auto Collabs,

Michael Cirillo: 0:12

who is a marketing director BDC director kind of almost a, what I can tell from her LinkedIn profile. She covers a lot of territory. Paul, Kyle, how did you get in touch with Erin? How did you get to meet her?

Kyle Mountsier: 0:26

So I met Aaron. And I think this is kind of my relationship with the group. But through the Auto Genius Network, actually, way back when I was still with Nelson, and I can't remember who kind of introduced her to that group, but just quickly realized that she had some chops. And, you know, as marketers go, it was like, an early conversation is like, so what do you exactly do, and it was like, somewhere between everything and all the everything's which is normally the way that kind of marketers go. So I'm excited about this conversation. Because normally what happens when you start talking to a marketer, you realize, oh, they do a little bit of everything somewhere around the dealership, because it's kind of that it's a role that especially a lot of smaller groups, or single rooftops, kind of becomes the catch all for a lot of different things. But oh, yeah, you know, there's just really savvy people to that take that to heart. And I'm excited to hang out with her because I'm guessing some of that would would come out in that conversation from my knowledge of her in the past. I really

Paul Daly: 1:30

like it when we get to talk to someone who literally is doing the work every day. And you know, regardless of how many things in the store that that is, the perspective is like of the marketer is usually in the middle of the scrum, right? They're always looked in all these different areas. So like they kind of see and hear and usually are confided in by a number of different people in the store. So I always like to have conversations with people who are in the middle of the scrum. So we hope you enjoy this interview with Erin Sparks.

Kyle Mountsier: 2:10

All right, we're already laughing again. And we're hanging out with my fairly new friend Erin Sparks, who is a member of Auto Genius, and also a marketing director at DeNooyer Chevrolet and Ford. Erin, thanks for hanging out with us today.

Erin Sparks: 2:27

Yeah, thanks for having me.

Kyle Mountsier: 2:29

Absolutely. You know, one of the one of the fun things that we always get to learn in our industry is just how connected and disconnected our industry is. And Paul was telling us just before this call, that there's like, actually 38 dinners. No, I'm kidding. Just just a couple. But you you have the pleasure of managing a couple of them from a marketing and service BDC perspective. But enough about now, let's talk about before because I'd like to hear a little bit about kind of how you came into the retail side of the, the automotive industry and, and and what your history has looked like from that perspective.

Erin Sparks: 3:05

Yeah, so I am originally from Wisconsin, I have to tell that first because I'm all about Wisconsin, first and foremost. But that's all right. Besides that,

Kyle Mountsier: 3:16

what's your favorite cheese? No.

Michael Cirillo: 3:20

To the real stuff, just getting rich. Tell us about

Erin Sparks: 3:24

is about food with you guys. Right? Come on.

Paul Daly: 3:27

Yes, pretty much.

Michael Cirillo: 3:30

Podcast. But I lived in Wisconsin for most of my life, moved down to Florida. And we lived in Florida for a couple of years started working down there in marketing after graduating. And then I came back and lived here in Michigan. I live in Kalamazoo now. And I started out here in Kalamazoo working for a local media and publishing company that is part of a larger organization that is nationwide. And the first five years I was a sales associate. And then the last five years I was in marketing and management within that organization. And much of those five years I was blessed and able to work with the automotive industry. So I like that side of that because I have a little bit of a different perspective in the automotive industry because a lot of people just they start out in the dealership side of things. And you know, one of the things that like, annoys the crap out of me is that when somebody says like, Oh, you're you're not from automotive, so you wouldn't know. And I was like, Yeah, but people still like to be respected and, like like and want to work with people that do things in a way that they feel are respectable and So, I mean, there's a vast majority of what automotive looks like all across the board. You know, there's the guys that are the epitome of the used car sales guy. And then there's ones that are far off of that as well, too. But I think that backgrounds like mine are great for automotive, because you can fall into that trap of saying that, like, Yeah, well, you wouldn't know because you're not automotive like, right?

Paul Daly: 5:25

Yeah. What was your? What was your experience in automotive prior to starting to work in the industry? Like, growing up or as a young adult? Right, what was your experience with dealers or buying cars? We've never asked that question since the first.

Michael Cirillo: 5:41

Yeah. Well, I would say my formative childhood years was very much framed in from my dad as a master certified technician.

Paul Daly: 5:54

Oh, we're all like, Oh, okay. Just that

Michael Cirillo: 6:02

I learned how to drive a stick on a 67 Camaro RS. Perfect Well, the month before I was born, and when I was about 15, you know, it was it was drivable. It's never it's always a work in progress, right if you have a car but so I learned how to drive a stick on that. And we went to car shows we did you know, all of the things that something my dad would love

Paul Daly: 6:35

to kind of like steeped in in like Motorhead culture more than automotive culture?

Michael Cirillo: 6:41

Yeah. I mean, like, Can I change my own oil? I mean, yeah, that's probably how, but I'm not going to

Kyle Mountsier: 6:51

appreciate that.

Michael Cirillo: 6:54

I mean, there's an appreciation and a love for automotive. That doesn't necessarily mean I'm capable of all of that. Well, it's like, Gene Simmons. You know, just because he's a rock star. We don't expect his children to also be rock stars, like maybe he's got a tone deaf kid.Or whatever. Think your own path. So, I mean, I think, and my dad is a Chevy lover. So he was real happy when I'm working on a Chevy store. So

Paul Daly: 7:26

yeah, he was like, I knew I raised you, right.

Michael Cirillo: 7:31

Gotta love those domestics. What? Something? Sorry, I'm just like, I need to go back to what you you initially said. Because this is a narrative that we need to hear more of this and just like, needs to be more broadly accepted. That here we are in a profession where in one breath, we're all like, you know, I got out of prison, and we can go and just kind of fell into automotive. Like, it's one breath saying it's open to everyone. But then there's this club of people that are like, you don't get to have a say, because you didn't come from automotive. It's like, dude, none of us in this industry. Okay. Henry Ford didn't even come from automotive until he was in automotive. When did you assume the identity of like, when did you accept I am in automotive? Do you know what I mean? Because I feel like it took me a good 10 years of being in it to finally be like, I'm in automotive. Like, I guess this, this runs through my veins. Did that happen in the Motorhead years? Or was it not until you officially moved into dealership? I think probably when I really moved into dealership because then I felt like I had ownership of something like I was telling you earlier this today, I was talking with our fixed ops director about something that in my opinion, needs to be fixed. Right. And it needs to be done because it's the right thing for the customer. And it's the right thing for the that that portion of our business. But I guess maybe half of me says like, I've accepted that I'm an automotive but like there's also like this part of me that says I have a love and appreciation for having an experience outside of automotive to end so bringing that and keeping that part of me alive. helps my automotive Yeah.

Kyle Mountsier: 9:23

have that experience because I think even even keeping that at the Center for for you and for other people in automotive, especially marketers that come from outside of automotive into automotive. What of the, like pre automotive marketing experience are you either seeing is still behind or that you're able to like lead from the front with in automotive knowing what you've known of other, you know, marketing ecosystems.

Michael Cirillo: 9:52

Yeah. Like something that came to mind right away is when like the sales team would be like But yeah, we we make a lot of calls. So like, yeah, we make a lot of calls. And I was like, have you been in any job that is sales outside of automotive because like, everyone has to make a lot of calls. I love that. Like, you know that you have to make calls. But like, you could have ended it there too, and just described generalization of all of a whole generation. Have you had any job? Just hard stop. Have you had any job, you got to talk to people? So like, sometimes, you know, like, you can fall into this thing where they're like, Yeah, but in automotive, you have to talk to a lot of people. And I was like, it was a requirement for us to talk to like, I don't know, 60 people a week or something. So like, yeah,

Paul Daly: 10:48

I get it. I having a job involves work. That really goes along with the job title. Paul, right. That's true. It's true.

Michael Cirillo: 11:02

So I don't know I I just love that they're like automotive and specifically in on and in dealerships, like, like, sometimes the best person for the role might be somebody that's not been in automotive, because it brings it in perspective.

Kyle Mountsier: 11:20

Yeah, for sure. Love it. I love it. So from a marketing perspective, right now, what have what have you been doing recently, that's kind of challenging norms, or things that you're really working on and seeing, you know, you're a member of this Auto Genius community that has a bunch of top marketers in the US kind of all solving problems and figuring out the best way to do things on a daily basis? What are you on hands in the dirt working on right now, to push the boundaries at your stores? That's like making an impact, or you're hoping makes an impact? Because you're trying something new? What are those things that you're kind of digging your teeth into?

Unknown: 11:57

Yeah, um, two things come to mind. From a overall arching dealership space, when I came into my organizations they were very heavily focused on the OEM message and what offers you are going to talk to them now this was, you know, a couple of years ago. But the thing I continue to preach, I think my f&i Manager, Corey can, like Imitate me by word for word and sound exactly like me. But I say often we have to tell our story. Because the only thing that separates us from the Chevy store down the street is what we believe and how we operate and why we do what we do. And so that's one of the bigger changes that we've implemented. In the last, you know, three years or so is, every time we go into a change, or we look at doing something different, especially in marketing. My question is like, what's the story? What do you want people to know? And please don't tell me that you want to tell them that wiper blades are 19.99, because that's cool. And like, also a good message. But that can't be the only message. So because a lot of what I have always seen in that is like everything is price related, everything is offer related. And while there's a time and a place for that, it's should be like 80 20 80% story 20% offer. So that's one of the bigger things that we've changed here. Another thing that we're working on and trying to figure out is that one of our other stores a Ford store, we are doing mobile service, there are some dealerships in the in the nation that are doing an outstanding job at mobile service. We're trying to crack that nut and figure out how to do it the best way possible that is in line with our business and our standards and our in the way we want to people to see us and understand us and not falter in the in the outcome of what that customer gets at the end of the day. So

Kyle Mountsier: 14:14

mobile services super complex, I'm guessing that like, you know, I don't know where you're at in that equation working with that team, but I'm guessing it is taking a significant level of involvement from internal and external partners to collaborate to make that happen. What have some of those conversations been like with, you know, whether it'd be tech partners or, or hardware or software or internal teams and like, how, how has your team kind of like created the communication patterns to bring something like that to market because it's not as simple as like, Oh, we got a technician and a truck, send them right. How have you navigated the

Unknown: 14:55

have the technician we have the truck and then we get complexity there and What if there's no internet? Or like one bar service? Have you tried to do a recall? That is a software update recall with one bar service, because I can tell you it doesn't work. And also, if it's in like a, like a unit that is a non gas powered unit, let's say that, if you don't finish it correctly, you could very well leave the vehicle is inoperable. I mean, these are big things that you gotta think I didn't, like, that's not even on me that's on our, that's on our team, we have a whole team that's trying to figure these things out. But that is, that is part of the communication. So I also work with our BDC team on that. And so we've got to work with the BDC. To know like, they have to be a little bit more knowledgeable. Because when somebody comes in and says, Hey, I want to do a recall, can I do a mobile service? They have to have learn a little bit more about those recalls to know, is this actually something that requires software updates? And then what did they do? What did they tell that person? What do we offer that person because they even, hey, they knew of our mobile service. We got him here. Now we can't do anything with service. So you know, we got to, we got to find that balance between letting people know what we can do, getting them to want to do it, and then servicing them well following

Paul Daly: 16:27

through on it, right in a way that is fulfilling the promise that you made with all the stories and all the awareness. Because there's there's an element, where if you have like a really terrible website, and you have terrible marketing, the bar that you have to like jump over in order to wow, somebody is much lower. Yeah, but the better your marketing is, and the better your storytelling is. And the higher the expectation right now you have to the bar that you have to jump is a lot higher. And it's I've seen this before, where someone have a terrible online like presence, but they have really great reviews. And then they they actually switch to like this really sophisticated marketing a better website, and they feel like the reviews start to go down a little bit. And I think that's because the expectation is higher with the better marketing. And so. So I mean, it's definitely a bar that you're setting for yourself. And like that challenge. I love the way I love how you straddle like operations and marketing, because those two things should always be in lockstep. Because if you have a marketer that's not in touch with operations, or vice versa, right, you're just setting yourself up for a bad customer experience, in my opinion. Yeah. Yeah,

Michael Cirillo: 17:41

well, and marketing, thankfully gets to like, run the gamut of all of the different parts of the organization. And they are one of the firsthand people to see the reviews that are coming back and the surveys that are coming back. And I mean, I can tell you, I lay in bed at night going through our comments on different social media posts, but there's likely nobody else in the organization doing that. And getting to see the feel and the sentiment, I'm the one that monitors the, the our chat tool on our website and sees you know, when our service or our sales teams or b2c are picking those up, what are they saying? What are they wanting to know about? You know, what, what is this makes me think of so a pal of mine, Marcus Sheridan, he, he I love the way he positions, you know, this, the there's a division between marketing and sales and operations. And to your point, Paul, and what you're saying here, and he positions it as there's no such thing there needs to be a revenue team. Businesses need a revenue team. And like that, the revenue team consists of marketing and sales and operations and, and all of the different facets, but it's kind of like what you're saying, trying to solve problems with, you know, your fixed department, they need to understand that that some way somehow, shape or form trickles back to revenue gain or revenue loss. And similar to how you're telling your story making promises that you either can fulfill or can't fulfill, like, everything maps back, but traditionally in dealership, it's like, no, I'm on the sales team. Therefore, I don't need to know what marketing is doing. Or I'm BDC and I don't need and salespeople are separate. And we see that a lot. It's like no, actually all of you are on one single team. It's the revenue team and that reconditions how everybody thinks about working together inter department working together. i This is what you're saying makes me think of how you're bridging that gap. And I think that's fantastic. So, yeah.

Paul Daly: 19:43

So I think it's like you just made me feel good inside. Thank you. So, it seems to me that the well I know, across the board that the marketing position isn't always or respected position inside the store a lot of time, the marketing staff can become order takers, tech support, you know the people who process a co op, in your store up, it's obvious that there's a level of respect for the work that marketing does. And in turn, you seem to really internalize the work you do as the marketer as an important one, right? If you're laying in bed, and you're checking reviews, because you know that you're, you know, that you're your role, and you're watching that angle for the dealership. Why do you think why do you think that respect exists in your store? Like, what's the history of the marketing department? Because I would love it if we can help broaden, broaden the horizons of some of the people listening to this. And maybe those who have a marketing department who would be in charge of a marketing department might begin to think a little differently about how they can integrate their marketers. So again, the question there is, what why is the respect exists? Why does it exist in your stores? Like, where did that start? And who carries the torch?

Unknown: 20:57

Yeah. Before me, they had a marketer that I know she was here for 20 odd years, did a lot of I mean, they didn't actually even call them a marketing director, I don't think it was more, you know, it was a communications director. And in my head, when I walked into this role in this position, my goal was to always be digging. Because there's got to be something or someone that is always looking for more in every department, and then bringing it back to that storytelling. Because not that there isn't ways for the organization to gather as one. But who else is going to do and if I don't, is my mentality is, who else will go ask a question of service. Because it just doesn't feel right. And because I saw a review, and then notice something, as I was walking through the service line, I get, again, I have that perspective that somebody in servicing doesn't have, because I don't live there every day. But I can't, right like, and same thing with sales. Same thing with parts. Same thing with, you know, just the look and the feel of the brand as a whole like, because I live in all of them part time I have a I have a responsibility to speak up and dig, when something either doesn't feel right, or whether it seems like there's opportunity, and that brings everybody together. So that's my opinion on how I should operate. And if there was something I would tell somebody else in marketing is that you can easily fall into the trap of being the person that just does Co Op and gives numbers from Google Analytics at the end of the month. And plans, the events, and I do all of those things do. Check, check check. But also, like, you can expect to hear from me if I don't think it's right. And I'm gonna tell you, because it's a responsibility I have to the organization that I give that because that's what I think they should expect.

Michael Cirillo: 23:22

I love it. We've got one final question for you. Before we wrap, we've had so much fun hanging out with you. I want to circle back to something you said earlier about the importance of coming up with your story because it's the true differentiator between your store and the maybe the competitor down the street. Historically, in our industry, we are shy of the idea of picking a lane and realizing that we can't please everybody, we're you know, because we realize a vehicle is a utility. It's a freedom. It's something that should be accessible to everybody, we sometimes position that and say, well, we should try and please everybody, we need every customer on planet Earth coming to our store in Kalamazoo to buy from us and nobody else. But inherent in telling your story. You realize as a marketer, that that's going to resonate with some people, and that's going to condition them to want to work with us, but it might also repel other people. So my question is, how do you as a marketer, reconcile, for the dealer to help them understand we're not going to get everybody inherent in telling our story, we will attract some and repel others. I think that what my message is always trying to focus on is the good, right? So you work good attracts good. The good doesn't always attract bad, but sometimes it does. Like there's somebody that's always gonna be out there to be like, oh, yeah, you said that you're a salesperson. Like we have a guy Rich he is beloved by every single person that ever touches Is atmosphere. And the other day we had a guy in there that was like, well, Rich didn't do a good job for me. He didn't give me enough on my trade. He's a terrible person. And I was like heavy. Like you would say that, like, terrible person at all. And so, like, as long as there's more good than bad, I'm not focusing on the bad. We're just, we're just gonna continue to grow the good and measure that good as best we can. So that's amazing. Well, you are certainly beacon of light in the industry. It's been so much fun hanging out with you, Erin, thanks so much for joining us on Auto Collabs today. Thank you for having me.

Kyle Mountsier: 25:44

Well, suspicions confirmed because it does look like Erin sparks, literally touches every element. I loved her. She had that little comment at the very end of the interview on that last question that you had her first Cirilo that she was like, Oh, I'm actually part time in every department. And I think it's so good wearing that hat is actually really key because then what it gives her the leverage to have those conversations across fixed ops and sales and an every department and every level of every department, because then places are in there. It's not like this. Oh, she's over there in marketing, right? It's like, oh, no, she kind of has a role here. We see her often she's engaged. She's engaged with things when they're working well, or when there's opportunities. And I think that that probably more people in more departments across automotive, not just marketers can take that to heart and go, Oh, well, I'm the service manager. But I got a part time role over here in service. That's right. As as to your part, Michael, were a part of the revenue team, right. And if that was the role that in the hat that a lot of people took, I feel like those barriers to customer service might actually come down a lot quicker.

Paul Daly: 26:53

I love growing. Love, I love I love the revenue team idea. I know you said it wasn't yours. But you know if you didn't say that, I would like Michael Cirillo said that he's so smart revenue team, I just love it. It as it is now use it three times in a sentence, not in the same sentence, I guess. I love that idea, the revenue team and the evidence of her taking responsibility for the things that are important in the store she talked about like, she's like, I'm the one that's up at night reading the comments and reading reviews because no one else is doing it. Her understanding that like, hey, her role is the marketer is to understand what the consumer is saying and being the bridge to go back and try to fix those things. You know, usually it's reviews typically speaking, right? Like when you have to address one, usually it's because something went wrong. And for her taking the onus to go address that as part of the revenue team, knowing that the customer review leads to operations, which leads better operations, which leads to better customer reviews, which leads to revenue. So I liked watching that whole thing progresses, she started to talk about what she does.

Michael Cirillo: 27:58

She I was kind of I was LinkedIn creeping her profile, she's got a couple of funny memes that to me kind of sum it up. One is if you don't have 2413 files in your downloads, do you even work in marketing. And the one above that was Little Miss marketer with 253 Plus tabs open. And I'm like, you know, that's that's the and you know, the stuff is not normal at night, like that level of ownership, you know, what's open in those 253 tabs and in those downloads, a bunch of screenshots that you find late at night as a marketer were you like, this would be so good for the management to hear knowing full well, they're not going to do anything with it. So you carry that burden as a marketer and say, Wow, you wrote but but I'm just saying between everything and I'll tell you me in defense posts. I mean, such a fun conversation with Erin, of course, I hope. We hope all of you listening and tuning in enjoyed that conversation on behalf of Paul J. Daly, Kyle Mountsier myself, Michael Cirillo. Thanks for joining us on Auto Collabs

Unknown: 29:12

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